On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we look at the history of the building and the qualities of its design that led to its recognition as both a local and national landmark.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank was founded in 1851 to afford a “safe and beneficial place of deposit for the savings of Tradesmen, Mechanics, Clerks, Apprentices, Laborers, Miners, Servants and others,” as outlined in its charter. Advertisements for depositors also appealed to women, stating they were to have “the same rights as other parties.” The bank flourished in its early years. By 1867, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank held deposits over $5,000,000 for over 16,000 depositors, and was “one of the wealthiest and most popular in the State of New York.” Bank trustees soon determined a large, new building was needed. The site committee chose the corner of Broadway (then South Sixth Street), the most important commercial street in Williamsburg, and Driggs Avenue (then Fifth Street) for the new bank. By March 1869, all the needed land was purchased.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank is a bank building of imposing grandeur, an excellent example of that Classic Revival architecture which preceded the Chicago Fair of 1893, that it has rich architectural details and imposing proportions, that it is built of enduring materials in excellent state of preservation and that this Bank has served the banking needs of its community with dignity and honor for over ninety years.
– Landmarks Preservation Commission, May 17, 1966
Bank trustees invited four architects to submit design proposals for the new building: James H. Giles, Gamaliel King, Peter B. Wight, and George B. Post. Post’s Renaissance Revival design was selected, while Wight’s “more conventional Second Empire style project placed second.” The design was chosen, in part, because the “grand banking hall and high dome dominating the Williamsburg skyline made a statement about the Williamsburgh Savings Bank’s wealth and importance.”
Post’s design “is generally considered to be one of the earliest examples of academic Renaissance classicism in American architecture,” serving as a precedent for future temple type banks, including McKim Mead & White’s Bowery Savings Bank of 1895. The original 1875 ground floor plan includes an entrance vestibule, domed banking hall with a U-shaped tellers’ counter, and, in the rear, a vault as well as offices for the President and Cashier. Dark granite columns with white marble capitals and bases and Néo-Grec polished bronze grilles are some of the opulent features of the main banking hall.
The great banking hall of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank at 175 Broadway is one of the most monumental public spaces surviving in New York from the post-Civil War era.
– Landmarks Preservation Commission, June 25, 1996
The original cast-iron dome, rising 110 feet above the banking floor, has an abstracted painted mural that is the only known surviving mural decoration by Peter B. Wight. Guille, Sarre & Lepelly, a New York firm, executed the painting in 1873-74. In the richly colored mural, a radial pattern of rays extend from a center cap to a border with stylized floral motifs and geometric designs, with gold leafing used throughout. The New York City Landmarks Commission noted Wight’s knowledge of English aesthetic decoration, particularly of Owen Jones: “Among the ‘English’ qualities of his designs are the flat, unshaded, boldly-outlined colors which emphasize the two-dimensional qualities of the wall surfaces and the geometric constructions and conventionalized representations of flowers and other natural objects.”
Anticipating increasing business following the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the bank constructed an addition to the west designed by the Brooklyn-based firm of Helmle, Huberty & Hudswell, which echoes Post’s original design and is connected by a large arched opening. The 1905-08 addition has a 65-foot dome with a leaded glass skylight. Small extensions were added in 1925 (again by Helmle & Hudswell) and then in 1941-42. The final addition was recently demolished.
For more on the history of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, including the design and construction of its 1 Hanson Place headquarters, read “From the Archives: The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower” on the League’s Urban Omnibus, published in 2012.
GEORGE B. POST (1837-1913)
George Browne Post was born in New York City and studied civil engineering at New York University. Post established his own practice — following a six-year partnership with Charles D. Gambrill and six years in collaboration with Henry H. Richardson — beginning in the late 1860s, and was heavily influenced by contemporary French architectural theory and design, taught by his mentor Richard Morris Hunt. In 1905, two of Post’s sons joined his firm, which had offices in New York and Cleveland. His most notable extant works include the New York Stock Exchange, the City College of New York, and the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Post was President of The Architectural League of New York from 1893 to 1897.
PETER B. WIGHT (1838-1925)
Peter Bonnet Wight was born in New York and graduated from the City College of New York. After working in both Chicago and New York, Wight gained public attention with his winning competition design for the National Academy of Design in New York, constructed between 1863 and 1865, which “played a major role in establishing the High Victorian Gothic style in this country.” Wight also designed interiors, including furnishings, fixtures, and stenciled wall and ceiling patterns. He later established a fireproofing company and wrote for major architectural periodicals.
The former Williamsburgh Savings Bank at 175 Broadway received a New York City Landmarks Commission designation for the exterior in 1966 and for the interior of the main banking hall in 1996. These two Landmarks designation reports are the sources of information for this post. The building was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
A BRIEF TIMELINE OF THE HISTORY OF 175 BROADWAY
The primary sources of information for the timeline are the New York City Landmarks Commission designation reports for the exterior in 1966 and for the interior of the main banking hall in 1996. Other sources are the Brooklyn Public Library, Peter Luger Steak House, the NYC Department of Transportation, The New York Times on the 1995 restoration and the acquisition by HSBC, and the AIA Guide to New York City.